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Snorkeling: Learning from Steelhead What Angling Can’t Teach

Category: Newsletter Articles | Posted by: Jonathan | 7/6/12 | Comments: 3

Summary: Almost 30 years ago, on returning from a remote and little known steelhead stream on the West Coast of Vancouver Island north of Tofino there came one of those decisions that one later remembers as pivotal -- a path taken with resulting joys and fulfillments previously unconsidered.

By Bill McMillan

Steelhead under waterAlmost 30 years ago, on returning from a remote and little known steelhead stream on the West Coast of Vancouver Island north of Tofino there came one of those decisions that one later remembers as pivotal — a path taken with resulting joys and fulfillments previously unconsidered.   In the company of two Canadians and one fellow American, our campfire evenings had included descriptions by the Canadians of snorkel count surveys they had been part of on several rivers.  They had been volunteers as members of the Roderick Haig-Brown Fly Fishing Association to provide Canadian biologists assistance in monitoring the commonly small wild steelhead populations of Vancouver Island rivers.  The endeavors had been physically challenging but had provided direct observations of how small and fragile the wild steelhead numbers were and how to be a part of conservation endeavors to protect them from a knowledge base that angling could not provide.  Furthermore, it was an extension of the progression that the life of famed Canadian angler, writer, and conservationist, Roderick Haig-Brown, represented when at over 50 years of age he began to scuba and snorkel his beloved Campbell River as its runs of salmon and steelhead increasingly faded after hydroelectric dam development.

In over a ten year period of the 1970s and early 1980s I fished for steelhead for at least a part of each day for over 300 days per year.  This was only possible due to living river-side on a steelhead stream that was open to year around angling at that time.  It also happened to have a history of wild ocean-fresh steelhead returning every month of the year.   Although no really large numbers of wild steelhead returned at any one time, the year around angling provided the opportunity to observe and record the complexly differing steelhead life histories required to fill the habitat niches created by 14 waterfalls on its two mainstems.  In my first five years of living river-side and fishing almost daily (barring flood, 100 degree heat, or ill health) I became aware that the wild summer steelhead populations of my two most treasured home waters, the Wind and Washougal Rivers, were in great decline with subsequent conservation activism on their part.  But getting progressive change in management to protect them had been through rarely effective participation in orchestrated public processes.  In participation of those processes it became apparent that one thing commonly lacking was real data:  in other words, how many fish are we talking about and based on what?

In 1979 I stirred some interest within the fly fishing club membership I helped found a few years earlier to do spawning and juvenile sampling surveys.  It was the blind leading the blind, but we learned to see and we learned to record and we became reasonably well versed in the nuts and bolts of what steelhead management should be based on.  But at the time, steelhead management in our area of Washington (where the Boldt Decision had not come to require it) was not yet based on determination of spawning escapements.  And what index scuba counts had once occurred on the Washougal River to monitor wild steelhead had been terminated in 1973.  One reason for termination is that only 25 steelhead came to be counted that last year and that their preservation was thought to be a lost cause due to human uses in the critical over-summering waters.  And secondly, it had come to be thought that the prolific Skamania Hatchery steelhead program initiated on the North Fork Washougal in 1956 had likely resulted in a hybrid hatchery/wild summer steelhead population with little or no differences.  My year around angling experiences begged to differ, but angling experiences do not win biological arguments.

Coming back from Tofino in the spring of 1983, it struck me that snorkel counting may be one way to defend the decision made two years prior to manage Wind River for wild steelhead by then Washington Department of Game in what was a most contentious public process.  How to go about it I didn’t know.  I only knew a wet suit and related equipment was needed and that rental places existed where one could be outfitted.  That summer the determination to learn snorkeling remained firm and I was able to stimulate a similar commitment to do so with two fishing companions also concerned about the future of wild steelhead and the future of steelhead fishing:  Randy Stetzer and Kerry Burkheimer.

That August we chose to snorkel Wind River Canyon through a 2.5 mile stretch and added a 1.5 mile stretch in the flats above the canyon.  A comedy of errors, miscalculated equipment, and two close calls in the rapids of the canyon resulted.  When younger, close calls are only a stimulus to try it again and do it better.  And we did.  Not only that but our tales of the endeavor at our fly fishing club meetings generated increasing interest by others to jump in and join us.  Remarkably, we came to become a club noted perhaps more for our snorkeling than our fishing with eventual coverage by newspapers, magazines, and TV.  Even a State politician wanted to cache in resulting in a steelhead leaping at a waterfall being thrown back into his snorkel and face mask with much gasping and laughing.  More importantly, we came to document some things that managers could not argue.  We were to learn that collected data could do the talking for us if written up and given a voice.

From the more personal perspective, it led to a life of continual revelations provided by steelhead and trout through days afield increasingly that of snorkeling and spawning surveys rather than fishing.  Why?  Because it gave me the greater, more lasting, and more contemplative joys of discovery than fishing.  It was not a sacrifice.  It was a joy to learn something that expanded my life from fishing, and through fishing, to another level.  At the same time, the pleasures of fishing were not diminished, only the quantity reduced to accommodate the joy of the new.

My son, John, may have actually snorkeled a year or so before me.  We can no longer remember for sure, but his first face mask and snorkel may have been summer “toys” we purchased to add to his life of growing up on a river beyond that of diving off bridges, inner tubing, and leaping from tree top perches into the deeper pools.  Or maybe he first borrowed my face mask and snorkel.  Whichever the case, he began to observe fish via snorkel and face mask at an early age, likely 11-12 but no later than 13.  It has been an inseparable joy to his fishing – a sort of symbiotic learning through the two mediums.  It is no accident that he has made important discoveries about steelhead and their resident form through snorkeling and underwater photography as a biologist and ecologist with over 150 miles of rivers snorkeled some years.  You have to be there to see it.  Where you spend your time largely determines what you will or will not observe or discover.


There seems to be increasing interest in snorkeling as a means of experiencing fish that are ESA listed as an active outdoor experience that may be able to fill in ones connection to fish and rivers that conservation closures may not otherwise provide through angling.

Snorkeling is indeed a great joy for those really interested in learning about the lives of fish otherwise mostly concealed by the surface division between air and water.

For example:  In 1997, Kurt Beardslee and I canoed 65 miles of Montana’s Smith River.  At the takeout I kept watch on our gear as Kurt went back with others in the party to pick up vehicles.  While doing so a little girl of about nine years in age was snorkeling the broad shallow stretch of river at the boat take-out.  Her father accompanied her along the river’s edge in waders.  Striking up a conversation, it was learned she had decided to take up this activity a year earlier as a means to experience the river near their ranch.  As we watched she continually bounced out of the water with glee at seeing a particular insect crawling about, or the colors of some fish she had seen, or the way the long lengths of algae waved in the current.  The lower Smith in August runs 70 F.  She snorkeled with only a swimsuit, pink rimmed facemask, pink snorkel, and pink tennis shoes.  I waited there for a couple hours until the vehicles arrived.  She snorkeled for all but the last 15-20 minutes I waited.  I like to think that today she is a well respected biologist potentially specializing in benthic invertebrates or fish life.  Her continual bursts of excitement through her snorkel pipe at her discoveries brought the joy of my own laughter – birds of a feather two generations separated.  That we all could be so pure of intent and zeal to know …


For those who may have interest in snorkeling first and foremost is survival for yourself and whoever is with you.  Snorkeling rivers is dangerous.  Kayaking rivers is noted for danger.  Snorkeling is kayaking without a kayak.  When a kayak hits a rock head-on it is with the material the hull of the craft is made of.  When you hit a rock head-on while snorkeling it is with your head covered by a few mm of neoprene.  I have come to call snorkeling extreme biology.  The potentials for fatality are numerous.  Most injuries survived are not major:  scrapes, bruises, and swellings.  But the close calls are nearly always those of near fatalities … death by drowning.  This is not to be taken lightly.  Most are aware of the skills needed to take a drift boat or canoe through white water.  They have the advantage of being enough above the water surface to see considerable distance ahead with basic plans of action made in advance.  But when snorkeling one is in the surface of the water.  One’s head is typically down trying to see fish but one’s head must regularly bob up to quickly estimate what is coming through the limitations of a face mask sometimes partly filled with water.  If one thinks that decisions have to be made quickly in a drift boat, cut that decision time to a fraction when snorkeling.  In a particularly difficult section of water with water falls, or boulders too tight in white water to weave through, the only safe way is to get out and walk around.  And of particular danger are turns in the river in fast water that suddenly reveal a log or log jam coming right at one at considerable speed that must be avoided.

Among the greatest dangers is that of a foot getting wedged between rocks.  If one is going head-first downstream and over a chute of water, if ones trailing foot somehow wedges in the rocks creating the chute it leaves one head-down in fast water with nearly the impossible situation of trying to back the body upstream against the current to free the foot.  This very nearly claimed the life of a very experienced snorkeler on the Tolt River several years ago.  The opposite approach can also result in serious injury or death if one chooses to go feet-first downstream in fast water.  If the foot wedges in a rock and the current is too strong to stop, then ones body is carried over the top of ones own leg breaking it and/or drowning.  This nearly occurred with a snorkeling companion on Wind River many years ago.

Large waterfalls can have strong undertows.  Two very athletic swimmers (one collegiate competition level) were caught in an undertow while diving down to see what was beneath a falls on the North Fork Lewis River while trying to count bull trout in the latter 1980s.  With lungs bursting and great physical effort they swam against it to regain the surface.  Lesser swimmers would have drowned.  I rarely recommend swimming against the current, but rather swim with it to most quickly alter one’s course and avoid trouble.  But in this instance they felt there was no other choice than that of being driven still deeper into the pool’s depths below the fall’s plunge.

One of the most effective times to count steelhead, in particular, is sub-freezing winter weather.  The reason is two-fold: 1) in the cold the water is the clearest; and 2) cold water slows the fish’s movements so that they are much more easily counted.  However, river water in such conditions will typically be in the mid-30 F range, sometimes but a fraction above freezing.  With care and properly fitting equipment one can snorkel for an hour or two in such conditions okay.  But if a drysuit or wetsuit has any sort of leak, or if the wetsuit is not tight fitting, there can be great threat of hypothermia.  Four of us snorkeled Wind River one late November day with a foot of snow after a week of freezing weather.  Two had not snorkeled before but were young and athletic … both very trim of build with little body fat.  Unbeknownst to them, their wetsuits did not fit tightly enough.  After about 0.75 mile of our planned 1.0 mile float count I noticed that they were not well responding to my questions of how many fish they had counted.  They did not want to seem like they could not take the cold and before they knew it they were beyond reasoning well at all.  The fourth person in our party quickly went to the car a quarter mile downstream which had a Coleman stove in it.  Water was heated and poured down their wetsuits and after about 15 minutes they were regaining more normal behavior and could walk to the car.

And finally, one must be in reasonably good shape.  It is very physical and once committed to a 1-5 mile snorkel there is no easy way back to the starting point if you decide you are not up to it.  The one fatality I do know of in river snorkeling the past 29 years is that of a heart attack.


I would first recommend rental of equipment from a dive shop to see what sort of suit you are more comfortable with.  Most fish managing agencies anymore have gone completely to drysuits.  I do not like drysuits because I find it more difficult to make my body move with the same ability as a wetsuit because drysuits always retain a little air in them.  But they are more comfortable in cold conditions and comfort levels vary by person which can determine which of the two choices is eventually made.  If I had learned with drysuit I may well have never considered anything else, but I learned with a wetsuit and have ever since preferred that choice.

It seems like everyone has an individual preference for face mask style and brand.  Some fit a person’s face better than another.  My beard has always made a good face mask seal a problem, for instance.  If you wear glasses with pretty strong prescription you can eventually have a face mask made with that prescription to make observations better underwater.  (Note: fish are always magnified under water.  What seems a 20″ trout may only be 10″-11″ depending on how ones eyes perceive.  Over time one adjusts and does not need to consciously focus on this, but it always remains good to take along a 6″ ruler and put it in front of you to help adjust your vision.)

DO NOT use fins or weight belts.  You want to wear wading shoes as used in fishing, and the lighter the better for snorkeling.  Many times water is shallow at summer levels and one has to crawl on the belly through the shallow areas more than swim.  In other instances when long lengths of shallow water occur, or in the smallest of streams, one may have to walk much of the planned snorkel section and only pop in at the pools with sufficient depth to hold fish.  Swim fins are only practical if one happens to focus on snorkeling a few specific river pools rather than float count a long length of varied water.  A weight belt will commonly be torn off in swimming any length of shallow or heavy white water.  Their only advantage is limited to that of diving into a few deeper pools and if one does not plan on float counting the water in between.

Always wear neoprene gloves.  You will fend off every rock with your hands.  In the first snorkel of Wind River many years ago I decided not to rent gloves assuming summer water was not particularly cold and it would be easier to record fish numbers with pencil and notebook.  Big mistake.  For two days my hands were swollen the size of 1940s style baseball gloves from using them to bounce off hundreds of rocks.

For recording counts you will need a plastic cased pencil and a write-in-the-rain notebook to record in.  The latter can be purchased at stores that carry surveying supplies.  For years I carried pencil and notebook within the top of my wetsuit and would unzip the top to access it.  However, today there are compact fanny packs and even small back packs that fit close to the body that can even accommodate a small lunch (no such luxury in our early years).  When you record adult steelhead and/or salmon, try to determine as often as possible the presence of an adipose fin or not (wild or hatchery).

Basic underwater photography today is quite easy and relatively inexpensive with waterproof digital cameras of acceptable quality in the $200-$350 range (depending on source purchased) made by Pentax, Olympus, or Fuji (among the better known).  I have used the Pentax Optio series since 2007 and use them for virtually all my photography anymore.  The Pentax is remarkably rugged and has fallen from my wetsuit top to bare rocks at a height of four feet without damage more than once.  Such cameras are very compact.  I keep mine inside the top of my wetsuit near my chest.


Pick a relatively easy first exploration … maybe a quarter to half mile of stream in summer conditions and not particularly rapid water.  Pick a stream that has very good water clarity.

On the whole floating with the current is best.  Once in a pool one can first float through and then come back swimming upstream to make a second observation of what you may have seen.  In rapids if you see a fish you want to more carefully observe, find a calm spot and turn around and carefully work back upstream to get into position to do so.  In white water you can often get quite close to them.  Fish can be very difficult to find.  They hide back in tree limbs along banks or bury heads beneath a rock on bottom only a tail (or tails) sticking out.  It is like an Easter egg hunt.  Challenging and fun.

Regarding longer term planning for what to accomplish, one may want to query a biologist if she or he knows a river reach where volunteer counts might fit into being a useful source of data.  Or there may be a stream of particular interest to an individual or a group that would make for a preferred target.  For example, I have been recently told that there is a reach of the North Fork Stillaguamish in Washington that was formerly counted on a regular basis that has not been counted in recent years for steelhead, salmon, and juvenile fish use.  This would be an ideal situation from which to target snorkeling that replicates the same reach as formerly covered with the same range of species and fish life histories recorded (sometimes a focus may be juvenile salmonids, other times just adults, and still others both).

Bill McMillan and his son, John, have authored a new book, May The Rivers Never Sleep, their view of rivers and streams through photography and writing, capturing hours and hours of snorkeling adventures. Buy a copy of the book.

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3 Responses

  1. Great article!
    Bill’s writing captures the joys of swimming rivers, experiencing fish on their terms. I’ve been snorkeling the rivers of Washington state for the last 5 years not as part of any official study, but because it’s simply incredible. I’ve fished all my life, but when a fisheries biologist turned me on to RS, things changed. My usual hobbies of rock climbing and snowboarding slowly faded to part time pursuits as snorkeling has become a passion. I may offer a few additional bits of advice.
    1: Buy a quality one piece wetsuit, preferably one designed for surfing or diving in cold water. Thick is good. I use a 5/4 mil surfing suit.
    2:Buy one with an integrated hood. The rushing water will flood down your neck, chilling you to the bone in seconds.Essential in anything but the warmest of water.
    3: Buy a boaters safety whistle. (One without a cork) and attach it to the suit or to your snorkel to gain the attention of your swim partner or people on shore in the event of an emergency. These whistles are a mandatory kayaking safety item for good reasons.
    4: Start small. Learn from baby steps. Explore slowly, just because you are snorkeling doesn’t mean you have to hit the big deep pools. Much can be seen in even the most modest streams and creeks.
    I’ve shot a number of short video pieces that can be found on my vimeo page dedicated to RS, check ’em out, some are fish, some are folks.

    Once again, Great article! Bill we really need to meet up, I’d love talk with you.

  2. […] wild. Pacific Northwest icons like Haig-Brown and wild steelhead advocate Bill McMillan both found in snorkeling something that extended their experience of their rivers far beyond what fly fishing […]

  3. SJHugdahl says:

    I live on the Salmon River in N California where uninformed fish enthusiasts like to snorkel. The problem is they especially enjoy going to the places where the anadromous fish are gathering in spring/summer to survive this western drought- cold water refugia. The are easily stressed by people (and also their dogs) “chasing” them out of the refugia. I would really appreciate it if you would ask your readers to be sensitive to this and stay away from them.

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